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Manufacturing Large Membrane Mirrors at Low Cost

Shapes are determined by edge retention fixtures rather than by precise molds.

Relatively inexpensive processes have been developed for manufacturing lightweight, wide-aperture mirrors that consist mainly of reflectively coated, edge-supported polyimide membranes. The polyimide and other materials in these mirrors can withstand the environment of outer space, and the mirrors have other characteristics that make them attractive for use on Earth as well as in outer space:

  • With respect to the smoothness of their surfaces and the accuracy with which they retain their shapes, these mirrors approach the optical quality of heavier, more expensive conventional mirrors.
  • Unlike conventional mirrors, these mirrors can be stowed compactly and later deployed to their full sizes. In typical cases, deployment would be effected by inflation.

Potential terrestrial and outer-space applications for these mirrors include large astronomical telescopes, solar concentrators for generating electric power and thermal power, and microwave reflectors for communication, radar, and short-distance transmission of electric power.

The relatively low cost of manufacturing these mirrors stems, in part, from the use of inexpensive tooling. Unlike in the manufacture of conventional mirrors, there is no need for mandrels or molds that have highly precise surface figures and highly polished surfaces. The surface smoothness is an inherent property of a polyimide film. The shaped area of the film is never placed in contact with a mold or mandrel surface: Instead the shape of a mirror is determined by a combination of (1) the shape of a fixture that holds the film around its edge and (2) control of manufacturing- process parameters.

In a demonstration of this manufacturing concept, spherical mirrors having aperture diameters of 0.5 and 1.0 m were fabricated from polyimide films having thicknesses ranging from <20 μm to 150 μm. These mirrors have been found to maintain their preformed shapes following deployment.

This work was done by Larry J. Bradford of United Applied Technologies for Marshall Space Flight Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs. com/tsp under the Manufacturing & Prototyping category.
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